Steely Dan are one of the most enigmatic duos in music. Formed in 1971 by core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, they spent the subsequent decade producing some of the most outlandish and surprising records of the era. Steely Dan crafted their unique sound by blending aspects of jazz, rock, Latin music and classic R&B with explorative and highly sophisticated studio techniques.
In many ways, Steely Dan was less a band and more a production duo. They tended to avoid the limelight, preferring to craft their songs piece by piece in the comfort of their recording studio, bringing in session musicians on numerous occasions. This insular methodology marked out Steely Dan as one of the most important outsider voices of the 1970s. In this isolated recording of the guitar track from ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, we can hear the level at which Steely Dan were working. Their virtuosity as musicians is matched only by their stunning talent as producers.
The guitar on ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ is instantly recognisable. Becker’s playing had caught the attention of Donald Fagen heard the musician practising his instrument inside the Red Balloon cafe. He was so taken with Becker’s playing that he wasted no time in asking him if he wanted to play in a band. Becker shrugged in a “yeah, I guess” sort of way. And so, Steely Dan was formed. However, the guitar in this track is played, not by Becker, but by Ellio Randell, a session musician Elliot Randall, who stopped by the studio after receiving an invite from Steely Dan.
It was the first of many times Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would rely on session musicians throughout their careers. So much so that, by their fourth album, nearly every player was a session musician. Randell’s guitar is clearly the driving force behind the track. It treads the line between excessive rock twiddling and jazz-oriented bliss with ease, garnering the praise of Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page, who called it one of his favourite guitar solos of all time.
Randell responded to the praise in a 1999 interview, during which he said: “it’s guitar work that I’m very proud of…But there is a very large body of my playing that I feel is equally interesting. Needless to say, when one plays on thousands of recordings, the law of averages dictates that a very large percentage of that work will never see the light of day.”
Take a listen to the isolated guitar track on ‘Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ below.